To most of us the battle of Balaclava only means the Charge of the Light Brigade, but although that charge, both because of its superb courage and the remarkable blunder that occasioned it, stands out boldly, the battle has other claims.
A word first as to Balaclava. It was from this port that the English, arrayed against Sebastopol on the right (the French were on the left), received their supplies. Sir Colin Campbell was governor of the port, which had two lines of forts—"the inner, close around Balaclava, where the ground was steep and difficult, and these were manned by English marines, and armed with naval guns; the outer was a line of feeble redoubts encircling the Balaclava valley. The first of these on the right, just opposite Kamora, was on the hill known to our soldiers as 'Canrobert's,' the rest crowned the Causeway heights, a low range of hills across the crest of the great Woronzoff road into Sebastopol. These forts were of weak construction—'a donkey might have ridden through them'—their armament was inferior, and they were garrisoned by Turks, on whom too much reliance was not placed."
The 93rd Highlanders and sixteen hundred cavalry were the only British troops in the valley, Lord Lucan holding supreme command here, Lord Cardigan and General Scarlett respectively being in command of the Light and Heavy Brigades. The Highlanders were encamped under some cliffs, near the Turkish redoubts, and the valley was admirably suited to the movements of the cavalry.
It would have been very much to the advantage of the Russians had they been able to capture Balaclava, and with this end in view it was decided to move forward a large body of infantry, some twenty-five thousand, thirty-four squadrons of cavalry, and about eighty guns.
Information of the impending attack had been given by spies to Lord Raglan, the British Commander-in-Chief, whose headquarters were some distance away, "but he gave no orders, took no steps to meet it, for he had been misled by spies before."
About seven o'clock on the morning of the 27th, however, he received a message that the Russians were on the move towards Balaclava, that they had indeed attacked the Turkish redoubts and were taking them in quick succession. The British 1st and 4th Divisions were immediately despatched to the scene, General Bosquet and two hundred Chasseurs d'Afrique following hard upon their heels. Raglan also sent word to Balaclava that the cavalry were not to engage until the infantry arrived to their support.
Meanwhile at Balaclava Sir Colin Campbell had been busy. As soon as he saw what was afoot he had called out the Highlanders, the cavalry were got ready, and the little force waited for the coming of the Russians. These, as they captured the redoubts and sent the Turks flying towards the port, turned the guns upon them, doing considerable damage. Those who escaped made their way to Campbell's Highlanders, on whose flank they were formed. Campbell had drawn up his Highlanders, five hundred and fifty of them, in a double "thin red line," instead of in square, the accepted method of receiving cavalry.
"Remember, men!" he cried to them as he passed along the line. "There is no retreat. You must die where you stand!"
As one man the thin red line replied:
"Ay, ay, Sir Colin! We'll do that!"
And they were ready for the Russians.
Canrobert's hill had been forsaken by the Turks; the Causeway heights were attacked by the Russians, and the Turkish defenders, at the sight of the enemy, and at the thought that their compatriots on Canrobert's had fled, also turned and ran—before even the Russians reached them.
When the Turks dashed away, the Russian advance cavalry galloped down upon the thin red line of bristling bayonets. With thundering hoofs the squadrons pounded over the ground; with waving swords and leveled lances they came—and stopped. At the word of command, a withering fire had burst forth from the British rifles, emptying saddles, sending horses to the ground, pulling the whole squadron up in its charge. What had seemed to be a thin weak line had proved a line of fire through which the Russians could not pass. Off went the Turks in a panic, crying "Ship! Ship! ship!" as they raced to the port. "The Turks fled, but the Scots stood firm," said the telegram home; and at last the Russians perforce made their way back along the path they had come—a sadly diminished troop.
By this time the main body of the Russian cavalry had crossed the hills, preparatory to descending into the valley to charge on Balaclava. All seemed clear before them, but suddenly Scarlett and his Heavy Brigade appeared in sight: the 5th Dragoons, the Scots Greys, and the Inniskillings, supported by the Royal and 4th Dragoons.
Scarlett at once determined to attack the Russian cavalry. Calling upon the men nearest to him, the 2nd squadron of Inniskillings and two squadrons of the Greys, he ordered them to advance, commanding the remainder to support him. With three hundred sabres, therefore, he moved forward at the charge, taking his place at the head of his men.
Before them were three thousand Russians. With "A Scotland for Ever!" and a rousing Irish yell, the Scots and Inniskillings dashed up the hill against the massed lines. With a terrific shock they were on them; with a clashing of swords, and a clatter of accoutrements, they had broken through the first rank and were lost in the sea of foes. Nay, not lost, but finding themselves in valour and glory, for steadily but surely the Russians were forced back by the cheering Britishers whose death-dealing swords swept round and down with lightning rapidity, and as the supporting Heavy cavalry came up, and fell upon the Russian flanks, the soldiers of the Tsar broke in confusion and spurred their horses across the heights.
"Greys! Greys!" cried old Sir Colin Campbell, flushed with his own triumphant stand. "Gallant Greys! I am sixty-one years old, but if I were young again I should be proud to be in your ranks!"
"Well done!" was the message Lord Raglan sent to Scarlett.
The Russians, infantry and cavalry alike, had now retired to the end of the North valley, the six columns of infantry and six of cavalry being covered by thirty-six pieces of cannon, while on the slopes beyond moved masses of other Russian soldiers. Undoubtedly the cavalry which Scarlett had scattered should have been tackled by the Light Brigade under Lord Cardigan as it passed by on its retirement, yet for some reason or other this was not done; moreover, the Causeway heights were now a danger to the British army, and should have been retaken; but, again, this was not done.
But when the Russians seemed to be about to carry off the guns they had captured, Lord Raglan, who had witnessed the operations, and had sent orders which were disobeyed, at once issued a command that the Russian project was to be baulked. Captain Nolan was sent to Lord Lucan with the message, which was a written one, "directing the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front and prevent the enemy from carrying off the guns."
There has been much unpleasant controversy since as to what Lord Raglan meant. There was some argument between Lucan and Nolan. The former interpreted the message to mean that he was to attack the Russian guns down in the valley, and protested that it was sheer madness and uselessness to attempt such a thing. Nolan's reply was: "Lord Raglan orders that the cavalry should attack immediately."
"Attack, sir! Attack what?" exclaimed Lucan, who later, after the blunder which brought death and glory to the Light Brigade, said that Nolan's reply was:
"There, my lord," with a wave of the hand down the valley, "is the enemy. There are your guns."
It was enough; Lucan's interpretation of Raglan's order had apparently received confirmation from Nolan; the guns were to be attacked. He gave Cardigan the order to advance down the valley.
"Certainly; but allow me to point out that there is a battery in front of us, and guns and riflemen on either flank."
"I know it," answered Lord Lucan, "but Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey!"
As calmly as if he were on church parade, he turned round to his men and said quietly
"The brigade will advance!"
Then, placing himself well in advance, of the men he was leading into the valley of death, he moved off at the gallop. After him came the 13th Hussars and 17th Lancers, behind them the 11th Hussars, close upon these the 4th and 8th Hussars—six hundred and seventy-three men riding to almost certain death.
Across the grass-grown ground between the British and Russian positions the Light Brigade rode, Cardigan brandishing his sword as he called on his men, every trooper with nerves at a tension, every horse with out-stretched neck, and gathering speed as the yards flew by. Now they were in the zone of fire, and at that moment Nolan, apparently aware that Raglan's order had been misconstrued as a result of his own impetuosity and ambiguous message, dashed to Cardigan's side, possibly with the intention of rectifying the mistake. He never did so, for even as he was pointing to the right side of the road where the guns were that ought to have been charged, a shell burst at his side, a fragment struck him in the breast, his sword fell from his nerveless hand, and Nolan died with his hand still pointing the right way. His other hand still held the bridle, the horse still galloped on, till at last, feeling no restraint, it wheeled round and galloped back the way it had come.
But still the Light Brigade kept on its way to death; from front and both flanks the Russians opened up a terrific fire; shot and shell, shrapnel and bullets shrieked and sang through the air, mangled the devoted heroes, sent horses thudding to the ground, wrought havoc on every side. Horseless men sprinkled the ground, riderless horses held on their unguided way or wheeled about; and ever the men of glory and renown faced the foe, with ringing British cheers.
Then they reached the guns. Crash! They were through them. Gunners scampered away from these devils who feared neither shot nor shell; many of them were cut down, the guns were taken and passed—and then, on and on, into the massed cavalry behind the Light Brigade charged. There was no stopping that impetuous, hare-brained handful of heroes. Into a sea of foes they went, fighting like demons, cheering like schoolboys, hewing their way through plunging horses and raging, hacking men. Then at last, breathless themselves, with horses exhausted, they reined up; they had done all that mortal men could do—and the foes refused to be driven back.
"There was no stopping that impetuous, hare-brained handful of heroes."
"It's all up; threes about; retire!" yelled an officer, and all that was left of them wheeled about, lined up as best they could—and charged again! Back this time—still through the same forest of foes—still at the lance point—still with the sweep of the sword—still with the cheer of old Britain!
At last they were out, and then up the death-strewn valley, by ones and twos, by threes and fours, here and there in somewhat larger batches the remnants of the Light Brigade went back to whence they had come—to line up, two hundred and forty-seven men short, four hundred and seventy-five horses missing!
"Mon Dieu—it is grand! It is magnificent! But it is not war!" cried a French general who witnessed the glorious charge.
"Men, it was a mad-brained trick, but no fault of mine!" said Lord Cardigan as he looked over the remnants of his force.
"Never mind, my lord," replied some of the men. "We are ready to go in again!"
Of such stuff are heroes made; by such men has England become great.
Despite the blunder, despite the comparative ineffectualness of the whole thing, Raglan could not but admire the pluck that had carried it through; yet was he angry.
"What did you mean, sir, by attacking a battery in front, contrary to all the usages of war?" he demanded of Cardigan when the latter made his report.
"My lord," replied Cardigan, "I hope you will not blame me, for I received the order to attack from my superior officer."
No word of complaint; only the confidence of having done his duty. And so felt they all. They had had a glorious twenty minutes; they had charged as they loved to charge; they had fought as they loved to fight; they had brought to themselves glory, to their country honour.
As for the battle itself, it had not been decisive; the Russians managed to take away the guns they had captured—and that was all; while the spirit which had made the British infantry face the Russian cavalry unmoved, the spirit which had made the British cavalry tackle the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, increased the moral of the allied armies, and proportionately decreased that of the Russians.